Buhle Francis

Grandmothers of the Sea – Protecting Women’s Rights through Art and Fair Benefit – Sharing from seaweed harvesting in the face of climate change

Strathclyde Centre for Environmental Law and Governance, University of Strathclyde 


Buhle Francis is a scholar-activist researching ocean governance and climate change. She is interested in justice within the gender and ocean livelihoods nexus, inclusivity in ocean-related decision-making, as well as climate change, particularly adaptation to climate change by marginalised groups. She recently completed her PhD and passed her viva. The work showcased here forms part of her postdoctoral work.


This research project aims to contribute to protecting the human rights of women who are currently trapped in a ‘wage-slavery’ system of seaweed harvesting for a large corporate cosmetics company in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. These women have long histories and local ecological knowledge of the ocean, which are currently being exploited, with little benefit to them. This is particularly distressing, as South Africa is experiencing unprecedented climate emergencies (flooding and droughts) and in this context women, who for generations have relied on the ocean as a rural safety net and food security source (not to mention a site of spiritual and cultural sustenance), are now deeply threatened.

This particular group of women has experienced violent human rights abuses under the former apartheid regime and continues to struggle with discriminating national policies and contractual arrangements around marine resource use. All this undermines their climate adaptation and requires a sophisticated and strategic response. This collaborative study aims to co-identify human rights- and art-based approaches to fair benefit sharing from seaweed harvesting for the protection of ocean-related livelihoods, culture and climate adaptation. The project has been co-designed with a group of women artisanal fishers drawing on three years of collaboration through the Coastal Justice Network (CJN) – a knowledge-action network of small–scale fishers, environmental justice organisations and researchers. CJN emerged from art-based research Empatheatre which articulated a novel methodology led by Rhodes University under the One Ocean Hub Project (led by the University of Strathclyde) that surfaced multiple spiritual, economic and cultural connections to the ocean across generations.


My time at Strathclyde University included data capture, data analysis and writeup, however, I would like this showcase to highlight and gives more insights on the grandmothers in relation to seaweed harvest.


Gelidium pristoides (Seaweeds) is one of several red seaweeds that produce agar, a polysaccharide with remarkable properties and a gel that is used in many foods, cosmetics, and other products. More importantly, it is essential in medical pathology, as a neutral medium on which to culture bacteria, fungi, and sometimes viruses: there is no substitute for agar in medical research and pathology. As such, it becomes such an important marine species for many companies in South Africa to harvest it and use it as an ingredient for chemicals and detergents as well as to export it abroad and women are usually subcontracted as harvesters. This has been happening since 1975 and it is at this juncture that exploitation takes place. Women are “verbally contracted” (no signed contracts), resulting in no job security. They work under terrible conditions, but above all, the wages are received based on the weight of the dry seaweed, whereas when seaweed is wet, it is 10 times its dry weight.

Figure 1

Arrangements in which grandmothers harvest seaweed

There are two arrangements that the grandmothers face in seaweed harvesting, which involve daily trips where they go to the ocean for the day and return home. Between 15 and 30 grandmothers wake up in the morning as early as 4 am to harvest seaweed in the ocean while the tide is low. A big haulage truck comes to the village and parks in central points to collect the workers. The truck will drop the grandmothers in various locations within the beach and then it moves to central points within those locations where it parks. The harvested seaweed is put in bags and taken to the truck (carrying bags on heads) for approximately a kilometre. After loading the truck, the women are transported back home and dropped with their harvest at central points. They use wheelbarrows to load to homesteads.

In the second arrangement, the same women are taken to sites further from their homes – 60 to 400 km (around 5 hour drive). In these sites, women make temporary tents out of plastics for shelter (it can be in the bush or city council camping sites). If in the city site, the buyer will pay for the cost to camp on site. To cut costs, they share tents and cook and share meals (cook using either firewood or paraffin stove). The meals are at their own cost, however. They get an advance loan from the middle buyer who will deduct the loan from the wages. The process of harvesting is similar to the above – which involves starting early and loading into the truck, but this time seaweed is kept in the bags.   

In this project, we see images of the grandmother harvesting seaweed in the intertidal zone where she has no protective clothing (Fig 1) and we also see photographs of the seaweed carried by the grandmother who loads it into the truck that is stationed nearby, but the journey to the truck is difficult. At this point, the seaweed is wet and very heavy to carry (Fig 2, 3 & 4).

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 4

Processing and sale of Seaweed

At home, it is then sun-dried (Figure 6 and 7) – this process should take about a week under good weather conditions (not raining).  Again, the truck returns to the village to fetch the women with the dried seaweed to take to the company for weighing and sale. After selling, they then find their way home. At this point the truck does not transport them back. The price of seaweed is very low – one pay slip revealed the price at USD 0.30/kg. To make ends meet, the grandmothers take a loan from the subcontractor who would deduct it from the wages and sometimes the payslip comes as zero, so they are forced to loan again and the cycle continues.

Figure 6

Challenges faced by grandmothers

Exclusion –the grandmothers are not involved in any decision-making at the moment – no consultation on terms of the buying /selling prize or any government programmes such as the Oceans Economic Master Plan which is currently being rolled out by the South African Government. The working conditions are very poor, there has been no improvement in their lives since 1975. Due to the “loan involved” which has to be deducted from the wages, the grandmothers remain in debt, and it is difficult to free themselves from this arrangement as they work to repay the loan. Furthermore, seaweed is becoming scarce due to poor harvesting methods – recently, men have joined the women (creating the scramble for seaweed) and this is worsening their climate change adaptation.

Figure 7

Opportunities as seen by grandmothers

In the same village, there is a small-scale fisher cooperative which has been granted seaweed as a resource in their basket (Kiwane Small Scale Fishing Cooperative). The cooperative has struggled to acquire the permit, but once granted, it can actually engage the women. Furthermore, four of the women that are involved in the seaweed harvesting are part of the local coop. There is potential for adapting to climate change once the local people have the authority to deal with seaweed. It will reduce the poor conditions that the women are exposed to.

Art based (Way forward)

This project has continued post-SGSAH, whereby at the moment I am using art to tell the stories of the grandmothers. With others, we are collaborating with the Drama group at Rhodes University and during the performance of the piece, we invite policymakers and labour related organisations among others to come and participate in the discussion.

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